Racism and sexism, with hindsight

When I was in kindergarten, my parents moved with my sister and me to a new housing development in Bucks County, Pa. Bucks County is very charming; lots of old farmhouses and rolling farmland, much of the latter now being developed into giant McMansions with no design thought given to walkability or sustainability. For us, our big new four-bedroom house was the American dream. We left a small, cozy house in an old and very settled neighborhood and moved onto 3 acres of land, where every neighbor had a backyard in-ground pool and oftentimes horses, too.

My sister and I, to attend our new elementary school, had to walk half a mile down to our bus stop, which was located on a side road. I still, to this day, can’t believe that my mother put so much faith in us to walk those narrow country roads, which did not have sidewalks or shoulders, all by ourselves. Those were different times. But I remember that one of the first times we walked there together, a neighborhood boy called my sister a “Chink” and he turned to me and jeered, “You’re a Chink, too!” and my sister began to cry and I did too, not because I understood what he meant, only because I dimly understood that he had hurt my sister in some way, and I looked up to my sister, and had always viewed her as invincible, and suddenly, terrifyingly, she was not.

That type of incident probably occurred—oh, maybe, once or twice a year after that. And then I transferred to a much tonier private school in my high school years, and encountered no incidents of outright and ugly racism, although I was very puzzled by all the people who kept on suggesting that I go to school dances with the only other Korean-American in my class. And then in college, I encountered guys who were very into Asian-American women, and open about that particular fetish, and for me, who had been forever delegated to the friend slot in high school where boys were concerned, that they were attracted to me AT ALL was thrilling.

I share all of this to say: for a number of reasons, I have always found excuses for racism. Meaning, if you asked me, do I think racist behaviors are wrong, I’d look at you like, why are you even asking me this question, can I go punch someone in the face who’s hurting someone else? But if the racist behaviors were directed at me, I’d find some excuse to not call it that. To find some other label for the behavior that unacceptably labeled me because of my race—like, oh, they’re just being rude, goofy, etc.. It is only recently that I find myself thinking about moments like the ones I described above and saying to myself, “What the hell? Why did I not call it out for what it was–even to myself, privately?”

Later on, I found myself doing the exact same diversion tactics in the workplace when it came to sexist behaviors. One of the greatest jobs I ever had was at an organization that worked with teenagers involved in the criminal justice system—they came to programs we had created instead of going to jail or prison, which meant they got a second chance at not being messed up by incarceration for the rest of their lives. I worked at this organization in my twenties, and some of the teenagers—who were mostly black or Hispanic male teenagers—called out to me as I walked in and out the front entrance. “Hey, China Girl, come over here and sit on my face.” Stuff like that. I had colleagues at various jobs chase after me for dates and tell me they loved hot Asian women. And at one job, my boss told me that I had a great body, that I was exactly the type of girl they’d love to date if they weren’t married, etc.

Why did I resist in not seeing these behaviors for what they were? A number of reasons:

  • I didn’t see the point of labeling them, because I didn’t believe there was anything to be done to stop them;
  • I was raised by parents who, as immigrants to this country, were pro-assimilation and wanted me to do everything possible to succeed and fit in with this society. They wouldn’t speak anything but English to me at home; there were no classes for me to study Korean or learn about the Korean culture.
  • I was also raised to avoid conflict and avoid causing ANY trouble.
  • I did not have the vocabulary or the knowledge to describe what was happening to me, and how behaviors like the ones I experienced are embedded in history, in our society, and the systems around us until well into my college years. Once I had the vocabulary and the knowledge, I was turned off by the people who wanted to tell me what I should do with that knowledge and language. Like, I remember saying during a college class that my dad still used the adjective “Oriental” to describe himself and a white female classmate turned to me and stridently said, “I hope you told him how WRONG that word is and how he needs to stop using it IMMEDIATELY.” And I mumbled something non-committal in reply, meanwhile thinking, “How in the HELL is this your business, anyway?”

Now I write this post in March 2018, having recently exited an executive-level position at a nonprofit and in this period of transition from one career phase to another, I find myself thinking about one big thing that’s changed in the past few years: I am no longer able to explain away the behaviors. I am no longer able to excuse or not notice behaviors that to me feel triggered by gender or ethnicity or some other type of characteristic, whether these behaviors are directed at me or at others.

There are obvious reasons why the filters that blurred racism and sexism have now fallen away from my consciousness, and I find these reasons to be as compelling as the ones that caused me to NOT take notice of these behaviors, like:

  • Well, duh, the glaring racism of the Trump Administration, and the truly villainous attempts of Republican members of Congress to label those behaviors as anything other than outright racism: is there, really, any difference between calling an entire continent of countries “shithole” versus “shithouse places? I think NOT.
  • The #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, which were born out of truly horrifying stories of the abuse, assault, and suffering of so many women;
  • The immense amount of great training and learning I’ve been able to do on topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • The pain and suffering of people who are being excluded and oppressed in our society that can not be ignored by anyone other than the most callous and depraved among us.
  • Getting older, and being fundamentally incapable of putting up with less crap when I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young person scrambling my way up to the top of the tree.
  • My kids, now teenagers, are of a generation where being more conscious of these issues feels much more inevitable, they are exposed to so much through media and their school lives.

I have no further profound thoughts on the pleasure and the pain that comes with the greater awareness I now possess on the racist and sexist behaviors that have impacted my life for so many years. I can only say:  it hurts to be out of the bubble, and I hate feeling this angry so much of the time, there are days when I feel honestly sickened by all the anger. And I still don’t know what exactly to do with all of this awareness. I don’t want to march, although I respect and celebrate the motivations of others to do so. I don’t want to run for office, god bless the women who are showing up for that, because it feels like it would take superhuman efforts to rise above the pervasive misogyny and corruption in our politics these days and I am feeling far from superhuman at the moment. But even though I’m floundering a bit at the moment, would I go back to the oblivion of the years when I didn’t see these behaviors for what they were? Not on your life.